Wednesday, February 08, 2006

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Yellow Submarine (1968)

Billed as The Beatles' "mod odyssey," the 1968 animated fantasy Yellow Submarine is an 89-minute retro delight: an imaginative fairy tale girded by whimsical flights of verbal and visual imagination, and all of it featuring the terrific, timeless music of Ringo, George, John and Paul.

The story begins "once upon a time" in far off Pepperland, where the nice, happy (and colorful...) folks living there are attacked without warning by The Blue Meanies, a bunch of killjoys armed with anti-music missiles who only "take no" for an answer. Their unprovoked attack takes the Pepperland people by surprise, and the community literally "turns blue" under the assault of Blue Meanie weaponry, which includes a guided missile called GLOVE which - you guessed it - looks like a giant human hand with a pointed finger. The rolling green hills and lovely land of Pepper becomes a landscape of grimacing gray faces, all frozen in a sullen silence. Joy has been exterminated...

However, one man escapes the onslaught of the Blue Meanies in a yellow submarine (hence the film's title...) and goes in search of someone - anyone - who can restore his home to its former wondrous glory. After the opening credits, the yellow submarine arrives in the audience's reality, the UK to be exact, a brick and mortar world of factories, workers, industry and lonely, isolated people...almost a deadly dull palette after the color and vitality of Pepperland; a feeling which is nicely accentuated by the Beatles' sad tune "Eleanor Rigby," which is played on the soundtrack. In short order, the Beatles are recruited to save Pepperland, and begin a long journey to reach it.

On this incredible sojourn fusing music and madness, the Beatles travel through time and space and age rapidly (to the tune of "When I'm 64"), pass through a sea of strange animals (including a walking teacup and saucer) and even encounter a "Nothing" named Jeremy, who speaks entirely in rhyme. Here, as Ringo thoughtfully decides to bring Jeremy from nowhere to somewhere, the tune "Nowhere Man" is played. Next up, the Beatles move to the "foothills of the headlands" to find the route to Pepperland (accompanied by trippy imagery and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.")

Finally, the Beatles arrive in Pepperland and wage a most unusual war of melody and love against the Blue Meanies. They must impersonate Pepperland's most popular group, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and rally the people of the land into rebellion with the return of their music. They do so quickly, restoring color and vitality to Pepperland in the process. The tunes they use in this endeavor include "All You Need is Love," and "With a Little Help from My Friends." There's even a genuflection to "flower power" as Jeremy casts a spell on a Blue Meanie that makes flowers bloom all over his chubby body.

In all, Yellow Submarine is a dizzying trip loaded with unforgettable imagery and songs (twelve of 'em, in fact). It's a bizarre exploration of inner space from the same year that gave the world 2001: A Space Odyssey

The movie positively springs from one silly verbal pun to another, and is packed with wall-to-wall jokes. When the Blue Meanies are defeated, for instance, one of the baddies asks where they will end up. "Argentina?" another responds questioningly, implicitly linking the Blue Meanies to real life villains like the Nazi Regime, some of whom also fled to Argentina after WWII. The language in the film is silly and wonderful, filled with non-sequitur and malapropism, yet it is the trippy imagery that remains so evocative of the late 1960s and early 1970s...a great time for world cinema. For instance, there's a vast of sea of holes preceding a sea of green, and when the yellow submarine first departs England, the film cuts to a dizzying, rapid-fire montage of landscape photographs to indicate the exodus from our world to another. From an ocean of sine waves to an explicit demonstration of how long - precisely - 64 seconds is, the film is daring in its imagery, abstract in its jokes, and never less than entertaining.

In a sense, Yellow Submarine made me a little sad because I realized while watching it that even in an era when CGI can create anything - how mundane and "realistic" our movie imaginings have become. Even our most sprawling fantasies (like Lord of the Rings) rarely seem abstract, symbolic, weird or wonderful. Back in 1968, a fairy tale like Yellow Submarine was cutting edge, but also an entertainment that a child and an adult could enjoy on totally different levels. It is the result of a silly, unfettered imagination, and yet no industry executive would dare greenlight such a project today, not when movies cost so much and must return a profit on the significant investment. The result is that we don't really have movies like Yellow Submarine now, and thus I wonder, did the Blue Meanies win? Has grim reality, and our own creative limitations forced us to endure a world where we only take no for an answer? I don't know about you, but that's not the world I want to live in when I'm sixty-four...


  1. yellow submarine is an imaginative wonderland, but i can't help preferring fantastic planet, with its similar limited motion animation, and a psychedelic jazz soundtrack that i probably like even more than the beatles tunes.

    don't despair for what is lost, though, as the spirit of yellow submarine is, i feel, preserved in a few dvds targetted and marketed to fans of certain musicians. "wave twisters", synched to dj qbert's album of the same name, is a mixed media cartoon extravaganza perfect for b boys and comic book/sci fi geeks alike. "interstella 5555" is a manga inspired cartoon narrative set to daft punk's very disco new classic "discovery." directed by leiji matsumoto.

  2. George - I'm a big fan of Fantastic Planet too, though a bit more partial to the music of the Beatles.

    I really, really need to learn more about the manga "interstella 5555" you mentioned here. This is something I know absolutely zilch about, but which fascinates me.